July 28th is National Buffalo Soldiers Day, the holiday celebrating the contributions of some of the earliest African-American troops in the United States military.
These troops served on the Western frontier after the Civil War. They served in a variety of ways including security, law enforcement, and other frontier-specific activities. In 1866, Congress passed legislation known as the Army Organization Act, which formalized the creation of six all-Black U.S. Cavalry and infantry units.
National Buffalo Soldiers Day will be celebrated on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers?
It’s unclear why African-American troops were referred to as Buffalo Soldiers. History.com speculates that it might have something to do with the ferocity and bravery these soldiers displayed in battle or that they often wore robes made from the skin and hair of buffalo to keep warm; other explanations may have less flattering explanations (a reference to hairstyles or aesthetics is one notion) but like so many names and nicknames over history, the term “Buffalo Soldier” transcends its origins and is considered a badge of honor today.
The first troops to be called Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, assembled in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. There would be more regiments to come:
9th Cavalry Regiment
10th Cavalry Regiment
24th Infantry Regiment
25th Infantry Regiment
Second 38th Infantry Regiment
Part of understanding the origin story includes knowing that while many African-American regiments assembled and fought during the Civil War, these troops were not formally known as Buffalo Soldiers. That would come post-war after the legislation authorizing the six Black units (mentioned above) was passed.
Some sources report that these troops made a different kind of history. From 1899 and a few years into the 20th Century, these African-American troops served as the earliest park rangers in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. How early? The National Park Service hadn’t even been created yet.
These troops not only served with distinction; some earned the Medal of Honor. These troops include:
Edward L. Baker, Jr.
George Ritter Burnett
Louis H. Carpenter
Powhatan Henry Clarke
William H. Thompkins
George H. Wanton
William Othello Wilson
The oldest surviving Buffalo Soldier passed away in 2005 at an amazing 111 years old. That is not a typo–Matthews lived a full century, plus one decade, plus one year; Mark Matthews was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Buffalo soldiers In Popular Culture
Some who are fans of the late reggae legend Bob Marley will recognize the following lyrics:
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival
Said he was a Buffalo Soldier
Win the war for America
–Bob Marley, “Buffalo Soldier”
There were at least two Hollywood films titled, Buffalo Soldiers produced in the 21st century but only one of them is about the history-making individuals who served in uniform. That film, shot in 2018 and starring Danny Glover, gets high marks for its depiction of these warriors at the end of the Civil War.
Celebrating National Buffalo Soldiers Day
The very first event of its kind happened in 1992, and none other than General Colin Powell was responsible for dedicating a monument in honor of these troops. Located in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where the original 10th Cavalry was stationed. A Buffalo Soldier Museum can be found in Houston, Texas.
The holiday is not a federal one; no banks close and no days off are scheduled for observances, and those who want to pay their respects are encouraged to visit monuments that may be nearby and research the history and contributions of these soldiers. When posting on social media, using the hashtag #BuffaloSoldiersDay is also encouraged.
You may find observances on the local level, unit-level or even base level depending on location, mission requirements, and other factors. You may be able to get information from your state or local government official sites, the local office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, or from military cemeteries that may choose to hold events or post information about July 28th and its significance in American culture.